Sunday, 6 July 2014

Day of The Locas

Note to readers in a hurry: scroll down past all this rubbish about libraries and skip straight to the review section. Go on. See if I care.

In our ongoing quest to read every single comic ever, my partner-in-comics Dr Foot and I have - for the past ten or so years - been steadily working our way through the collected graphic novel sections of every branch of the county library system. This has proved to be not so monumental a task as one might first assume, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, each branch of the library has more or less the same set of comics on offer, presumably so as to make the same general set of what they consider to be a reasonable spread of titles available to all library members across the county. So, no matter which one you walk into, there'll be the same old Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 3, Persepolis, Marvel Zombies vol. 5, Mega City Justice, Alan Moore DC collection, 100 Bullets, The Boys vol. 8, Clone Wars vol. 9, Powers vol. 2, Walking Dead vol 12 and so on. So having started out by cherry picking the titles we fancied the most, we're now taking out whatever's left on the shelf that we haven't yet read. I've resisted the comic version of Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter that stares impudently out at me from the library shelf thus far, but it's only a matter of time before I succumb and take it out in desperation; like eating a packet of stale oatcakes at the back of a near-empty cupboard.

Secondly, I've noticed the graphic novel section in my local library has been steadily shrinking over the years. It used to warrant an entire book case. Now, it's barely two shelves, and that includes the 'librarian's choice' book that have been turned face-forward to pad out more shelf space. This make me sad. Probably cutbacks. Or someone's just chucking out all the rubbish Transformers collections that nobody reads.

Poor old library - it's free to take stuff out, and given the price of comics in the shops these days (£2.65 for Rocket Raccoon #1 this month! Blimus) why would you choose to buy over borrow? I suppose it's the collector mentality in your average comic buyer, as I'm well aware, glancing over at the several-thousand-comics stack of comics just to my left.

But all the same, it feels like the county library's missing a trick here - instead of duplicating the same darn set of 50 graphic novels in every branch, why not have one big set with a much wider range and just circulate them periodically around the branches? If the library's online search and ordering system was better, folks could just reserve comics from wherever in the county, leave it a few days for it to arrive at their local branch, and hey presto. But the online interface sucketh to high Asgard, with an individual title in a series - say Ex Machina volume 6: Power Down - being catalogued under the individual volume title Power Down, or under the artist Tony Harris instead of the writer Brian K Vaughn, while other titles in the series may simply crop up as Ex Machina or Ex Machina vol 3. Rubbish.

Why on earth am I waffling on about libraries and comics and stuff? OK, since you ask so nicely, I was leading up to explaining that there's a bunch of old comics that I'm only now getting around to reading, on account of Dr Foot and I having worked our way down to them eventually. They may not always be my preferred read (very few of them for example have the Avengers dog-piling the mad god Thanos), but many of them have merit, either as a piece of art that's still worth reading, or as a historical milestone in the development of comics as we know them today.

That all sounds kinda pretentious. What I mean is: here's my review of an old comic, and why you might like to read it.

Today's subject is a graphic novel collecting some comics from the 1980s. Ideally I would have written this review in about 1990, but I didn't (as I was too busy completing the Days of Future Present storyline collected across Marvel's FF and X-Men titles and hunting down back issues of Rom: Spaceknight), so please print out the section below and paste it into an old issue of Starburst or SFX from the 90s for the appropriate historical context.

The GIRL from H.O.P.P.E.R.S.
a Love and Rockets book
by Jaime Hernandez

Also called Locas Book 2, this whopping 280-pager is a collection of stories from the American alternate comic series Love and Rockets, spanning material from 1985-1989. So-called 'alternate' because it was neither a mainstream superhero comic nor an underground Robert Crumb type comic, though their influences can be felt. I recall that during the comics explosion during the late 80s and early 90s, Love and Rockets was often cited on TV series like Comics: The Ninth Art as one of the trendy titles out there that didn't involve capes or webshooters. Though its heyday was some thirty years ago now, the series is still being published and republished to this day.

Great wide-screen opening shot from the eponymous tale of  character's demise
Love and Rockets was created by Californian brothers Hernandez - Gilbert, Jaime and Mario (I'm not sure what Mario did - he strikes me as the Zeppo of the family, possibly unfairly. Sorry Mario.) collectively known as Los Bros Hernandez. There's a lot of Spanish in the comic naturally, some of which is explained in teeny tiny footnotes. Gilbert largely wrote stories set in a Mexican village called Palomar, whilst Jaime set his in Los Angeles (kinda; there are also spaceships, but try to ignore them). Both involve a wide cast of characters who are largely normal folks going about their day, with the emotional ups and downs of families and relationships being the general themes.

Locas refers to two of the central characters in Jaime's LA stories - Maggie and Hopey, which I guess just translates as 'crazy girls' or some such.

What's Good About It
Jaime Hernandez' artwork. Clear, clean black inkwork. He's rarely off form. Look at this lovely crisp little shot of Maggie's punky hair and dark lips.
He draws people simply but (on the whole) not cartoony. You can see that they're real people, with real bodies.

Some of it reads like cool storyboards for a movie or dialogue-free black and white montaged stills.
Doyle can't get no sleep.
Sometimes, very occasionally, it's downright eerie. Check out this scene of Satan talking to a depressed Izzy from a crack in the wall.
Satan lives in a crack in your wall. Brr.
In a lot of ways, the low-fi, indie, black and white storytelling reminds me of Kevin Smith's Clerks. There's a lot of time spent on people just hanging out, talking about friends and lovers, fretting about their relationships and getting hung up on neighbourhood dramas. I bet Kevin Smith would have done a great Love and Rockets movie. Or even better, directed an animation based on Jaime's artwork.

What's Not So Good About It
One downside of the uncluttered art style and relatively simple palette is that it can sometimes be hard to tell characters apart, like when a bunch of unnamed boys with short dark hair are all lounging against a wall calling out to the girls. Apart from the odd character like the non-Mexican Doyle with his blond hair, your dumb reviewer got Ray, Joey and Speedy mixed up a lot, as well as Izzy, Penny, Maggie and Hopey. Changing their hair styles is cool, but it plays merry hell with character identification. I could have done with a Who's Who before every chapter.

Above: Hopey, Magg- no. Terry, Hopey, Izzy, Hopey again? No, that's Maggie at the end. Or Penny. Or possibly Rogue from the X-Men.

The stories hop back and forth in time with little indication of when they're set or what age the characters are at this point in their lives. Again a cool device, but it does add to the confusion of who's who. Scenes and stories seem to shift abruptly halfway to another setting with little indication that we've gone to a flashback or skipped to some folks across the country. Stories can sometimes end oddly too, often it seems with a shot of one character getting booted up the ass by another, as if Hernandez ran out of page and had to end quickly with a bit of slapstick.

On the other hand, the examples above suggest Hernandez would be pretty good at pithy 3-panel newspapers strips.

The style occasionally drops into a more mangaesque look, especially when it comes to rendering people's outraged faces, at which point they exhibit massive round gobs full of cartoon shark teeth, which one might find a bit jarring.
A frustrated Ray morphs into a character from Dominion Tank Police
The facial depictions of some of the black characters (mainly Danita to be honest) are arguably just a little unfortunate. Having sort of spaceships and monsters in the early stories just doesn't fit, and they were eventually phased out. And the rich guy's horns are silly.
HR Costigan and his icky finger-horns
On the whole, it feels like the editor just left Hernandez get on with it and didn't bother to check the storytelling to make sure readers could follow it. One poignant story ends with a character committing suicide; I thought he'd been murdered until I later read a plot summary online. If you're looking for an easy jumping-on point with Love and Rockets, there ain't none, except to start right at the beginning with all the odd spaceship stuff and plough on through.

What's Different About It
It's a soap. Or rather several soaps. Which was pretty different at the time though that approach has slowly seeped into mainstream comics over the decades, for example in the work of people like Brian K Vaughn, Brian Michael Bendis and Kieron Gillen. There are no superheroes (unless you count the masked Mexican wrestlers and Penny Century's inexplicable superhero outfit).

He also ages his characters and moves their lives along. They grow up, move away, get back together, change their hair. Just like in real life.

It has well realized, central female characters in the likes of Maggie and Hopey, and strong support in the form of Izzy, Rena, Danita and others. The male characters also get their screentime, and whilst the individuals may be sexist or sexy, I never get that impression from Hernandez himself. Sure's Maggie's got a big behind and she sometimes mopes about being overweight, but this is neither Big Booty Monthly nor Bridget Jones: The Comic Book (though that would be cool).

Predating the Dove soap ad campaign by some decades.
There are lots of references to music, often playing in the background in the form of sound effects. Quite possibly some or all of it is taken from real bands, which would mean more to people familiar with the Southern Californian post-punk scene of the 80s than your humble reviewer. But it's nice to think that there's a possible playlist to go with Locas.

It's quite gay. Without being about gayness. Hopey and Maggie are kinda gay. Probably bisexual. But it's rarely the central theme. They just fancy girls and boys, which is cool.

How You Should Read it
Find a who's who of Love and Rockets. It'll help keep all the black-haired women straight (or not-so straight). I'd recommend the images page of the ComicVine entries for L and R characters, like this one:

A chronology would also help. I recommend this one:

Keep your Spanish phrasebook handy - I went for ages thinking that one of the characters was called Tia Vicki, before realising that 'tia' just means aunt.

Why You Should Read It
This is a series mainly about women, without impossible bodies or superpowers. It rambles and jumps around but has a lot of life in it, whether it's the perils of hanging on to your wrestling title, your girlfriend or a hopeless drunk that you knew in school.

But mainly read it for the art.

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